In the moments after the Toronto Argonauts win in the East Final, running back James Wilder Jr. peeled off his dirt-stained Double Blue No. 32 and replaced with a well-worn throwback jersey the colour of a Creamsicle.
The name on the back of both: “Wilder.”
James Senior played 10 years in the NFL, mostly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his son honoured his father by wearing his jersey in the moments after the biggest win of his professional career.
“I’ve had it since I was a child,” Wilder Jr. said. “I used to wear it for Halloween and it used to drag across the floor because I was so small.”
The youngest of three Wilder children – his brother is 14 years older, his sister seven – James was born two years after his father retired from the NFL but grew up in the same city where his father became a star. The Bucs weren’t particularly good during the Wilder era, but he was a Pro Bowler in 1984 and ranks first in team history in rushing yards and attempts.
“Growing up I was always the son of James Wilder and it took me a while to break off into my own path,” he said. “There wasn’t really any pressure. I look at as an honour: I’m always mentioned as his son and that’s pretty cool.”
Wilder Jr. was a two-time high school all-American in Tampa and played three seasons at Florida State where he won a national championship in 2014. He went undrafted by the NFL but got a workout from his Dad’s old team at their practice facility.
“When you come out of the locker room there’s a huge picture of my father on the wall,” he said. “For them to still value his legacy meant a lot to me.”
The 25-year-old spent parts of three seasons on practice squads in Cincinnati and Buffalo without getting an opportunity on the field. Argonauts general manager Jim Popp scouted Wilder while still running the Montreal Alouettes and brought him to Toronto shortly after joining the team in February.
“We worked for a year or two – because he kept coming in and off rosters in the NFL,” Popp said. “I felt like if you could ever get a guy that size into the CFL they would have an advantage.”
The Wilder genetics are certainly strong. Senior was listed at 6-foot-3, 232 pounds and his son is virtually the same size – same height, seven pounds lighter. Mom was a sprinter and his sister Courtney played in the women’s Lingerie Football League two seasons ago.
Wilder started the season playing mostly special teams for the Argonauts – Popp said he was the team’s best wedge-buster on kickoffs – before working his way into the offence. He started just 10 games but was fifth in the league in rushing with 872 yards on only 122 carries while adding five touchdowns. He led the CFL with 7.1 yards per carry.
He also made the biggest play of the Argos season during the East Final. With just over a minute remaining and the team facing third-and-five, Wilder made a 22-yard catch off a toss from quarterback Ricky Ray to keep the game-winning drive alive.
“If they’re in zone it’s a different read but if it’s man, I’m the read and Ricky is waiting for me to get open,” Wilder said. “I knew if I dropped it, everyone was going to be disappointed – all my teammates, the fans – so I caught it with both hands.”
He could have included his father on the list of the potentially disconcerted. While his mother, sister and aunt made the trip to Toronto for the East Final, James Sr. told his son that he would be travelling to Ottawa for the Grey Cup – whether Junior was in the game or not.
“He’ll say stuff like ‘I’m not coming to a small game like that, I’m going to the Grey Cup. Are you gonna be there?” Wilder Junior said, dropping his voice a couple of octaves to imitate his father. “That’s his style. It’s a way to keep me hungry and humble. It’s not personal and it’s always done in a fun way.”
“But it’s motivating.”
Wilder says his father is planning to be at the CFL Awards gala on Thursday, where his son is the odds on favourite to be the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie. Then Sunday, he’ll watch him play in Canada for the first time at Sunday’s Grey Cup.
“He motivates me all the time to be better than he was. To play the same position, wear the same number, it’s something that I love,” Wilder said. “To be able to have your idol, your role model and your mentor be your father, you can’t beat that.
“The jersey seems to fit just right now.”